Pandemic and the Planetary Emergency: Why do we treat the crises so differently?
As the daily urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic begins to fade, this report pauses to reflect on the lessons learned from the global response to the pandemic and asks why, despite the looming threat, has our collective response to the climate crisis looked so different?
Having witnessed how the conventional rules and systems perspectives that govern global decision-making, socio-economic policy and public mobilization can be re-written in the space of a few short months, this report aims to better understand what factors can shape the effective mobilization of resources and will-power to mitigate the worst outcomes of the climate crisis.
Understanding that the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has increased societal awareness of the possibility to respond effectively to global crises, we highlight the reasons why this same expectation should, and must, apply to the climate crisis.
Introduction to a Crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the defining crises of our generation. In a few short months, we witnessed government-led mass mobilisation of public health measures across the world including the implementation of social-distancing, lockdowns and vaccination programmes. Urgent and proactive measures to prevent the rampant spread of the virus were initiated with widespread collaboration from global populations in the hope that the worst outcomes of the virus could be avoided and pre-pandemic levels of socio-economic normality could be re-established. The vast majority of nations were quick to realise just how grave a threat the emergence and spread of this virus posed to their citizens, their economy and to the globalised apparatus that is required for the functioning of their political systems. This essay seeks to examine why the ongoing climate emergency, itself a crisis with the capabilities to tip global systems beyond recovery, has not been addressed from a socioeconomic standpoint with comparable scale or gravity. From the limitations introduced through planetary boundaries, to the measurable impacts of biodiversity loss, extreme weather events and rising global temperatures, climate change presents a visceral and identifiable threat. However, the response to the climate crisis over the previous decades has been characterised by slow, inadequate and incomplete strategies which have failed to prevent disastrous environmental and socio-economic harm. Why have our responses to COVID-19 and the climate crisis looked so different? We expect activists, scientists, policymakers and more to come together and manage crises with a convincing level of responsibility, commitment and urgency, yet the lack of immediate and effective action against the climate crisis is in stark contrast to the coordinated responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. By examining the scale of the issue, the systemic factors that help to shape our collective response to a crisis, and the vested socio-economic interests of those who lead us, we aim to better understand what factors have hindered the urgent and effective mobilisation of resources against the climate crisis. In doing so, we hope that economists, policymakers and those powerful enough to act, take notice of and target these factors in order to respond to the crisis in a manner befitting the magnitude of the one we face.
Recognising a Crisis
There is a growing acknowledgement by economists and policymakers to recognise the daily progression of the climate crisis as evidence of market failure, where the public goods of the global commons have been degraded, destroyed or delivered into private ownership for the benefit of the wealthiest in society. Capitalism, the dominant economic system of the last 250 years, has evolved and mutated to threaten the existence of entire planetary systems, millions of species and the health and social well-being of billions of humans, both alive and those yet-to-exist. We now have a wealth of empirical scientific data that makes an unequivocal argument for the need for wide-spread systemic change in the face of the climate crisis. Yet enacting this change will put us on a collision course with the current dominant economic system and the mode of living, particularly that which is present in the Global North. Many economists who keep one eye on the future have wondered what the first disaster with the ability to bring our modern world to a collective standstill would be: A financial meltdown or a global energy crisis or water shortages or crop failures. Instead, it was a global pandemic that appeared almost overnight.
Different situations call for different responses. The COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis have distinguishable characteristics which are reflected in the measures taken in response to these crises. In the case of COVID-19, the initial speed with which the pandemic began to spread ensured that global systems had little time to adapt or respond. Our globalised supply chains began to stall and collapse as the measures implemented by governments, designed to halt the spread of the virus, also slowed economic output. This scenario brought the world to a momentary standstill with greenhouse gas emissions also plummeting. Yet, this standstill was little more than a blip.
This highlights one of the major differences in how we regard the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. The pandemic had been understood as a temporary challenge, and actions taken during the pandemic were taken with one outcome in mind: To return the world to the status-quo as quickly as possible. Lockdowns, vaccines and social distancing were all implemented so that society could safely re-emerge from its protective bubble and resume its cycle of production and consumption. While the measures associated with COVID-19 were unpopular globally, with many people understanding, yet resentful, of the restrictions to their daily lives, they were largely accepted due to their temporary nature.
These attitudes are not shared in the responses to the climate crisis. While it is not clear what future lies on the other side of a successful approach to the climate crisis, it is unlikely to be one that holds the current economic system in the same elevated status as it is held today. Significant changes to the way we travel, our diet, our attitude to consumerism, our relationship with energy, the way we manage our homes, the industries we choose to grow may all be required. These changes, as opposed to those temporary ones enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic, will need to lead towards long-term and complex changes to our socio-economic structures that enable a transformation to a new, rather than pre-existing, ‘normal’.
Understanding the Origins of a Crisis
The response to a crisis is largely guided by our ability to anticipate and prepare for its worst outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic provoked great urgency due to the immediacy of the danger it posed, with people experiencing the impacts of the situation in real-time, in parallel to the discovery and research of the virus. With subsequent research being characterised by a catch-up game as the virus mutated and new variations emerged, there was little to no time between the discovery and the eventual global spread.
Our demand for increased economic growth has increasingly stressed the boundaries between civilisation and nature, bringing once remote parts of the world into regular contact with population and industrial centres. With the majority of new and novel infectious diseases originating from wildlife, there is only one outcome to be expected when natural habitats, the buffer zones that help to prevent the spread of zoonotic disease, are stripped away (Malm, 2020). By removing these barriers in the pursuit of increased economic productivity through farming, mining and general exploitation, we are helping create the conditions in which future pandemics may originate and flourish. Combine this with the increased levels of globalisation we now see, that can connect even the most distant locations on planet Earth to our economic centres, we are knowingly creating an assembly line for future pandemic crises.
Therefore, the COVID-19 pandemic can be considered a potential symptom of a much wider and structurally embedded issue: The continued attempts for infinite growth on a planet containing finite resources and space. Yet, the responsibility for either of these crises cannot be placed at the feet of humanity as one undifferentiated whole. They are the creation of a relatively small minority of the population, living stratospherically beyond their means. This elite minority, guided by the dominant economic discourse and supported by established socioeconomic structures that maintain their ability to endlessly produce economic growth, regardless of the negative externalities, are beholden to a system that benefits them at the expense of the planet (E4F, 2020). Despite warnings from experts – the link between human behaviour and the emergence of infectious diseases – the COVID-19 pandemic took almost everyone by surprise, with the initial surge overwhelming the capacity of governments and public health organisations. Fuelled by many of the same issues that help to perpetuate inaction against the climate crisis: Misinformation, the absence of morally strong leaders and a growing disconnect from informed, evidence-led decisions from policymakers, there are many reasons to worry that the need to maintain a stagnant economic status-quo will come at the expense of effective and transformative change in the face of crisis recovery (Klein, 2007).
What is unambiguously clear however, is that the onset of the climate crisis has been watched, observed and measured for decades, with ambitious commitments but little to no meaningful progress. This advance warning, which should have allowed for substantial mitigation, has been largely wasted, with the worst outcomes of the climate crisis often being filed away as a problem for future generations. While the sudden emergence of COVID-19 may have caught both society and governments unaware to a certain extent, the wealth of information to support the dangers posed by the continually accelerating climate emergency has emphasised just how prescient the situation has become. In the case of the climate crisis, there is no such excuse to not respond to a situation where the potential for disastrous impact has been clear for decades. Lessons should be learned from the pandemic that inaction is a costly mistake, both economically and in the cost to human lives, and that any attempt at quick and decisive action today will only help to offset the worst outcomes of the still unfolding climate emergency.
A Simultaneous Crisis
Throughout the lifespan of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis kept pace and at times even outstripped the virus’ destructive capacity. At the same time as societies were entering lockdowns, vast swathes of the world burned as a result of wildfires or were flooded by intense and unseasonable rains. As those of us in the Global North shielded our respiratory systems behind disposable masks, millions died globally from air pollution produced as a result of burning fossil fuels (Vohra et al, 2021). Our capacity to respond and react to just a single crisis – the COVID-19 pandemic – distracted and desensitised us from recognising the toll of climate disasters occurring simultaneously alongside the pandemic. However, as large parts of the world emerge into the post-pandemic present, what lessons can we learn to help shape our response to the climate crisis?
The pandemic has opened our eyes to the idea that previously unthinkable political, economic and policy decisions can be utilised in response to dire and unprecedented times of crisis. In May 2020, it was estimated by the IMF that initial estimates of the global fiscal support offered by governments around the world to help offset the economic fallout of COVID-19 was approximately $9 trillion, a staggering amount of money (IMF, 2020). This value, as large as it is, is deemed acceptable as it is positioned as a one time investment, to support a once in a lifetime event, the likes of which we are assured we are unlikely to see again. By comparison, a study undertaken by Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance groups, estimates that an increase in global temperatures of 2.6°C, an increase that we are largely expected to achieve, could inflict three times more damage than the COVID-19 pandemic, a value that would surely grow as the locked-in effects of emissions are allowed to take hold (Swiss Re, 2021).
If we assume that financial mitigation to repeating crises will become a staple of our economic landscape, then it is essential to examine the outcome it produces. Rather than ushering in an era of transformation, the pandemic spending attempted to re-establish the status quo. While our initial response hinted that almost all aspects of society could be mobilised in response to an imminent threat, we have yet to see any indications that world leaders will be able to channel this energy into a similar, more controlled socio-economic response for the climate crisis. As money was set aside for the post-covid economic recovery, there was little regulation stipulating that this stimulus had to be spent with the climate crisis in mind. Instead, the world has slipped backwards, looking to re-establish the pre-existing order. In February 2023, the World Economic Forum reported that a record $1 trillion dollars had been spent on fossil fuel subsidies in 2022, despite world leaders promising to phase out “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” at the close of 2021 as part of the Glasgow Climate Pact (IEA, 2023). This level of financial support should instead be channelled towards organisations and institutions who contribute to addressing the imminent challenges posed by the climate crisis in a just and long-term manner.
While we are now emerging from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are only beginning to witness the outcomes of decades of unrestricted capitalist growth. In the coming years our governments and leaders will be faced with climate catastrophe on a multitude of fronts. We learned during the pandemic the harsh lesson of how, in periods of exponential growth, the more we delay, the more we stand to lose and that ineffective action taken today becomes increasingly ineffective as time goes on. This is something we have already witnessed as part of the climate crisis, where weak, lenient and unbinding climate regulations have been regularly overlooked as successive distractions and crises demand our attention instead.
Learning from the Crisis
That the COVID-19 pandemic emerged to coincide with the most extreme impacts of the climate crisis that modern society has yet experienced, has provided an opportunity to examine how the differences in political and socio-economic responses to both crises can be understood. For a short while, the scale of the emergency presented by the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated that all government action had to be seen through the lens of limiting the spread and death toll of the virus, regardless of the impact that it would have on national and global economic productivity. This will and desire to respond has not been extended to the policies that govern our response to the climate crisis, where economic growth in the Global North is given preferential status over policies that might bring about real environmental change. Our neoclassical economic and political systems tend to foster myopic policy making and produce ineffective leaders, both of which lack the foresight or the ambition to produce long-term systemic change. The COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for strong leaders to stand up and be counted, implementing decisions that could have an impact on the timescale of weeks and months. The climate emergency requires leaders with the ability to look much further into the future, making decisions today that ultimately reduce the climate burden on generations to come through the implementation of long-term structural changes to the capitalist world economy.
This need for accelerated action should not come at the sacrifice of a fair and just response to the climate emergency. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, many national leaders prioritised excessive domestic access to vaccinations in wealthy nations over an inclusive approach that would have worked across borders and eradicated the disease internationally (Brown, 2021). These mistakes cannot be replicated when dealing with the climate crisis. Developed nations will rightfully be expected to contribute in a manner that is proportionate to their disproportionate production of the many historic and ongoing negative impacts that result from centuries of imperialism, colonialism and unfettered neo-capitlaism. This is further compounded by the likelihood that in a truly sustainable and equitable society, there will be those among us, primarily those above global average wealth in the Global North, who will need to become accustomed to a new normal, where the excesses of our privileges are redistributed to those who need it. Our economic system is one where the continued expansion and consumption of resources produces value that primarily serves the already wealthy, blinding them to environmental destruction and entrenching the systems that delivered them to that position. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis have the ability to impact with varying degrees across different geographies, populations and social classes. However, those who are wealthy and powerful often possess the means by which to insulate themselves from any damaging effects and even actively maintain the status-quo that has afforded them such privilege, further complicating and hindering any attempts at coordinating a collective response (Kuchler, 2020).
For many politicians, disrupting the business-as-usual systems may be an unwelcome and unappealing proposition, but for those who are able to inspire a collective societal response, the benefits for Global North and South alike will be transformative. How to regulate the disproportionate climate impact of the very richest and most powerful in comparison to that of the rest of society remains one of the central challenges in the fight against the climate crisis. In the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments turned to more extreme measures of issuing fines and sentences to those who broke the pandemic regulations. Perhaps now, with the tipping points of the climate crisis on the immediate horizon, the time has come to allocate a similar punishment to the resource-extractive super-rich who disproportionately cause the most irreversible degradation to the planet.
How Bias can Shape our Crisis Response
Our economic and political systems, and their responses to crises, shape individuals in a circular nature that supports the reproduction of the structures that serve their status quo, compounding the harm that global organisations cause with their own systemic disregard for the environment. Whether these individuals exercise influence through being voters, scientists, activists, policymakers or simply as humans, they are subject to biases in both their perception and decision-making processes in response to a crisis. Understanding how both COVID-19 and the climate crisis can tip our biases one way or the other reveals how and why these crises have been approached in a fundamentally different manner. There are several dimensions of human perception – including novelty, time and certainty – which can dictate how individuals experience crises in distinct ways. These experiences are informed by the structures of our economic and political systems, which establish normative principles and processes in our approaches to crises.
One way in which we are biassed in our responses to these crises is through the novelty, or newness, of their respective threats. The first theories and observations of climate change were made in the early 1800s and it took until 1988 for climate change to reach front-page news, following a warning from James Hansen, then Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Climate change has been researched and discussed for decades, gradually growing its body of evidence and public awareness over time. For many of us, within our lifetime, the threat of climate change has always been known. If we are among the privileged high-income individuals located in non-coastal regions of the Global North, the effects of this threat on our everyday lives have remained minimal over this time. Such cognitive unfamiliarity with climate change lessens our perception of the threat at hand, causing an almost ‘numbness’ to the level of danger that climate change has actually intensified to over time.
On the contrary, we have a tendency to react more strongly to threats which seem new, uncertain and uncontrollable (Osaka, 2020), which is perhaps why we have both demanded and accepted responses to the COVID-19 crisis which are more transformative and immediate than those to the climate crisis. Within the first 100 days of the first cases identified in Wuhan, China, COVID-19 became a pandemic with 1,500,000 cases and 88,000 deaths worldwide (Achenbach, Cha & Sellers, 2021). Its novelty and rapidly-developing character, to which neither scientists nor politicians had immediate answers to, invoked a deep-rooted fear that wasn’t experienced like the gradual discovery and onset of climate change. This is even reflected in the language used to describe the two phenomena: the COVID-19 pandemic was immediately termed as a “crisis”, while the climate crisis was described as “climate change” and “global warming” for decades, and only recently referred to as a crisis (Schuessler, 2020). Simply stated, we fear newness and the unknown. Unlike COVID-19, our cognitive familiarity with climate change has come at the cost of complacency and undervaluation of the crisis.
Related to novelty is the perception that comes from the time frame in which we experience COVID-19 and the climate crisis. Over the long time frame in which climate change has been observed, it has always been perceived as a phenomenon which will affect our future generations (Schuessler, 2020). Despite the progression of climate change, as evident from the growing number of floods, droughts, wildfires, tropical storms and periods of extreme temperature across various regions of the world (World Meteorological Organization, 2021), this narrative has remained unchanged. As such, we perceive a time-based distance between ourselves and the experienced impacts of the crisis, and also our responsibility to act urgently. This is made worse by the systemic nature of climate change, which means there is a substantial delay in the effects of policy measures against climate change (Jankó, 2020). As a result, we do not only feel distance between ourselves and the effects of climate change but also to our ability to act against it.
In contrast, the effects of COVID-19 – isolation, sickness, death – were felt immediately. Depending on the strand, the consequences of exposure to the virus materialised within 2-14 days following the incubation period. The concern was not for future generations but for ourselves, our families, friends and neighbours – now. We had a clear self-interest to act responsibly, which was accompanied by a hope that the pandemic was a short-term diversion from normality. What sustained this was that the effectiveness of measures against the virus were immediately visible, both on an individual level (e.g. social distancing) and a societal level (e.g. lockdowns) (Schuessler, 2020). Given the more rapid evolution of the crisis, we could experience the direct link between our own action and the wellbeing of those around us, allowing us to internalise the agency we had in responding to the pandemic. Unlike in COVID-19, the long-time frame and delay in cause-and-effect in the climate crisis dangerously diminishes our perceived responsibility to take urgent action (Oxley, 2020).
Finally, there is a distinct difference in the level of uncertainty we experienced regarding the climate crisis and COVID-19. Due to the complexity and sensitivity of earth’s climate systems, the climate crisis is expected to trigger changes which occur in an unfamiliar, unpredictable and irreversible manner. Many of these changes are so extreme and far-reaching that they feel unimaginable from our current perspective (Schuessler, 2020). As such, it is difficult to create a concrete visualisation of how the climate crisis will affect each of us now and in years to come. Moreover, the broadness of this crisis means that there are a wide range of possible approaches to take in mitigation and adaptation, which also makes policymaking and public acceptance of these measures more complicated and uncertain (Oxley, 2020).
COVID-19 also carried immense uncertainty when the virus emerged, but as the pandemic progressed, our knowledge of the virus, its transmission and its prevention grew at a rapid rate. The scientific and political communities managed to establish a narrow collection of procedures (social distancing, vaccinations, lockdowns, etc.) that resulted in logical and predictable consequences. Through trial and error, together we observed what works and what does not. We were able to accumulate a sense of certainty through our own repeated experiences with the virus and respective policy measures. Being able to internalise a certain and logical sequence of events can not only help an individual to better understand the crisis, but also to identify and internalise their role in collective action. Uncertainty, on the other hand, can create a barrier of confusion and fear which may prevent individuals from engaging with the crisis altogether (Jankó, 2020).
How do we fix this?
So, why have our responses to COVID-19 and the climate crisis, both crises with the potential to threaten the foundations of our economic, social, political and environmental systems, looked so different?
Breaking down the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, we have looked at the nature of the crisis itself and its manifestations at different levels of the political and economic spheres, before examining how these translate into systemic biases and responses. What is clear is that the response to either crisis is embedded within the current dominant capitalist economic system, which structures our daily lives and impacts our ability to take up agency during crises. Our political systems suffer from favouritism of the neoliberal capitalist status quo and myopic decision-making, which prevent political leaders from taking the needed long-term, forward-looking and structurally-disruptive decisions required to address the climate crisis. Whereas the COVID-19 pandemic fostered a shared experience of fear and a collaborative call to action, discussions surrounding the climate crisis continue to be hampered and delayed by debates concerning the division of responsibilities and reparations.
While the outcomes of either crisis are tied to the actions and attitudes of globalised corporations and government bodies, we must examine how these wider systems generate biassed responses. In the case of the climate crisis, our shared perception, characterised by cognitive familiarity and limited individual agency compounded by fear and confusion, has led to irreparable complacency in attitudes towards adaptation, mitigation and overall responsibility. We have responded differently to the novelty, immediacy and certainty experienced in the COVID-19 pandemic from which we have internalised the agency and effectiveness of our responsibility within collective action.
Ultimately, the scale and nature of these crises determine how we perceive and react to them, as well as how these responses are reflected in our broader economic and political systems and their inherent tendency to protect the status quo. The climate crisis is a permanent and unpredictable feature of 21st century life and will require a reconfiguration of every input and output of our economic, and subsequently social, political and environmental systems. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to the possibility that decisive and widespread action can be taken positively in response to unprecedented disaster, however it has also shown us that without advocating for structural change to our wider economic system, we can hope for little more than a mismanaged and unjust response to the largest crisis we collectively face.
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About the authors
Kristofer Grattan has a background in physics and has recently graduated with a Masters in Energy, Society and Sustainability from the University of Edinburgh. Since completing his studies, Kristofer has worked as a Research Associate for the Policy and Innovation group at the University of Edinburgh, specializing in energy policy for the wave and tidal stream sector.
Lotta Hambrecht has a background in economics with a Masters in Socio-Ecological Economics and Policy at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. During her studies, she has been working in international climate action research and policy advice, currently at the OECD in Paris.
The authors would like to thank all the anonymous reviewers for their feedback and the colleagues at Economists for Future International for the editorial coordination.